This post is in the Executive function category

Theory of Mind (ToM) takes on additional significance to this study in respect to written narrative, as narrative is a primary mode of data collection for analysis for and communicating the insights to the reader through autoethnography. Theory of Mind is also a significant factor in face to face communications within my musical practice, and it is discussed further in the “Communication” chapter and also raised in relation to Empathy.

In her article Narrative Discourse in Adults with High-Functioning Autism or Asperger Syndrome, Livia Colle uses analysis of spoken narrative to examine aspects of ToM. She begins with a discussion of the need for a speaker to organise and select relevant information, allowing for the listener’s perspective and extant knowledge to successfully communicate ideas, feelings and stories using narrative. The narrator has to keep in mind what information the listener already has, what information is new for them, and what information they need to know. Failure to do this could risk confusing the listener, or boring them with irrelevant detail. A story-telling task therefore gives an important window into how well a speaker can keep track of information for a listener, how well they can edit information for a listener – in short, how skilled the speaker is employing a ToM (Colle, Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright & van der Lely, 2008, p. 28).

Colle uses verbal re-telling of stories from a picture book to identify a number of aspects of the use of narrative that are unusual or deficient in her subjects with ASD, as compared to controls. In particular, she notes unusual pragmatics, reduced identification and maintenance of character focus, and less coherence and flow through use of temporal linking mechanisms that take into account the relationship between a specific event and what had gone before. Also there were less references to the mental and emotional states of the characters – the focus was more on the event than on the motivation and personal impact. In short, the narratives of ASD adults, while similar in length and sophistication, were less fluent, less personal and harder to understand. The results closely matched predictions based on deficits in Theory of Mind, including “showed a subtle but significant deficit when the listener’s needs determined the use of pronouns, to maintain reference to a character, and in their use of temporal expressions” (ibid. p. 40).

While it was focussed on speak rather than written expression, this article was something of an eye-opener for me in my own narrative writing, and I found myself actively looking for these characteristic weaknesses, particularly in the autoethnographical sections of this document. I found that these weaknesses were present in my writing, and that they were  frequently the subject of comment from reviewers and supervisors. Typical remarks received included “who are you referring to / addressing here?”, “this sentence / idea seems to come out of no-where”, “you need to introduce this topic before going into detail – I don’t know what you are talking about” and “we need to know more of the emotion here”. The process of edit and re-draft has (hopefully) addressed these issues, but it is of value to acknowledge them, and to acknowledge that fact that I can recognise them in my own work.

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